Jean Valentine was born in 1934 in Chicago, Illinois and has lived most of her life in New York City. In 1964, her first collection Dream Barker was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Her recent collections include Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan Poetry, 2004), which won the National Book Award; The Cradle of the Real Life (2000); Growing Darkness, Growing Light (1997); The River at Wolf (1992); and Home Deep Blue: New and Selected Poems (1989). She is also the editor of The Lighthouse Keeper: Essays on the Poetry of Eleanor Ross Taylor (Seneca Review, 2001).
Adrienne Rich says that 'looking into a Jean Valentine poem is like looking into a lake: you can see your own outline, and the shapes of the upper world, reflected among rocks . . . The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet.' This is confirmed by Jay Parini in the Times Literary Supplement: the "stripped unyielding quality" of Valentine’s work he says "will admit few and discourage most readers." He goes on: "Valentine's audience has always been small but enthusiastic . . . which is the sort of response one expects for a poet whose work is dense, almost hermetic, yet striking and intense." Both of these responses suggest that the reader is somehow implicated in Valentine's poems, and this is confirmed by Paul Zweig who praises her ability "to unresolve the reader's mind, to peel away its armor of opinions; to make it solitary, vulnerable and attentive." David Kalstone in the New York Book Review also describes a reactive response to Valentine's poetry: "She does not 'see and take'", he says, "so much as initiate the reader into very private feelings."
The surfaces of Valentine's poems appear to be simple - her language is clear and clean - but as a result it alerts us to the things left unsaid. This is especially true of her political poems, and helps to explain why she said "In the late 60's, early 70's I began to feel certainly very concerned about Vietnam, very anti-war, but I couldn't write about it with any directness. So then I kind of calmed down about it, and I thought, 'Well, I can only write what I can write,' . . . And so I guess what has happened is that I have been able to write more obliquely about the things I care about but not in the straight ahead way I wanted to, which many people have been able to do."
Both dreams and the unseen play a strong role in Valentine's, work and as she points out "there is a tradition for their connection in the Bible: dreams are messengers of God. Dreams and the unseen are about the mysterious rather than the daylight world." As this implies, Valentine understands that in order to write about the unseen world "you have to start with something physical, palpable. There is no other language for us. Even Rumi uses a cup or a table or a light, just because it's our world we can speak to each other about or through."
This blend of actual and visionary gives her poems a strikingly meditative quality which is really evident in the poems you can listen to here. Her lulling tone will draw the listener in, just as Rich says, to see their own outline in the poems, and glimpse what lies beneath.
This recording was produced by the Poetry Foundation on 10th July 2007, New York, NY
2004 National Book Award